The Electoral Vote Count Act lets Congress think it can choose the President, but it’s unconstitutional.
By J. Michael Luttig and David B. Rivkin Jr.
March 18, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal
Congress plans to establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. We already know one reason for that terrible event. Members of the mob acted in the mistaken belief, encouraged by President Trump, that lawmakers had the power to determine the election’s winner. Congress itself sowed the seeds of this belief when it passed the Electoral Vote Count Act of 1887 and could destroy it root and branch by repealing that law.
The EVCA grew out of another bitterly contested presidential election. In 1876 officials in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina certified competing slates of electors, one for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and one for Democrat Samuel J. Tilden ; a single electoral vote from Oregon was similarly contested. The 20 disputed votes were enough to decide the election. A congressional commission ultimately chose Hayes in a political deal. In exchange for the presidency, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction and withdraw federal troops from the South.
The EVCA was enacted 10 years later, largely to limit Congress’s role in determining which electoral votes to accept. Yet Congress gave itself more authority than the Constitution allows, by establishing a labyrinthine process to resolve state electoral-vote challenges. The most constitutionally offensive provision gave Congress the absolute power to invalidate electoral votes as “irregularly given,” a process that a single representative and senator can trigger by filing an objection.
Fortunately, this provision has seldom been invoked—only twice before 2021—and no objection has ever been sustained. But this year Republican lawmakers vowed to contest the results in six swing states that Joe Biden carried. Although the objections had no prospect of success in a Democratic House and those that were filed (for Arizona and Pennsylvania) were voted down overwhelmingly in both chambers, the law put Congress smack in the middle, where it uncomfortably found itself in 1876.
That’s not what the Framers intended. The Constitution’s Electors Clause gives state legislatures plenary authority over the manner of choosing electors and relegates Congress to determining on what day the Electoral College would cast its votes. The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, reformed the Electoral College by providing for separate votes for president and vice president. It also reiterates the Article II, Section 1 language that the certified state electoral results are to be transmitted to Washington, opened by the president of the Senate, and counted in the presence of both congressional houses.
No constitutional provision empowers Congress to resolve disputes over the validity of a state’s electoral slate—or for that matter addresses who is to resolve these disputes. Significantly, the 12th Amendment gives Congress no power to enact legislation to enforce its provisions, unlike subsequent amendments expanding the franchise. The Necessary and Proper Clause doesn’t support such legislation either. The constitutional text contains further indications that the Framers chose to exclude Congress from participating in presidential elections. While Article I, Section 5 grants Congress the authority to judge the elections of its own members, no such power is given with regard to presidential elections. And Article II, Section 1 forbids members of Congress from being appointed as electors.
In fact, after much debate, the Framers deliberately chose to deny Congress any substantive role in selecting the president and vice president, except in the rare case that no candidate has an Electoral College majority. This was for compelling separation-of-powers reasons. As Gouverneur Morris explained at the time, “if the Executive be chosen by the [National] Legislature, he will not be independent [of] it; and if not independent, usurpation and tyranny on the part of the Legislature will be the consequence.”
Thus Congress’s prescribed role as audience during the process of opening and counting the electoral votes is ministerial. With electoral college votes coming from all of the states, the counting had to be performed by a federal government entity, and both the executive and judicial branches had potential conflicts of interest. That Congress has no constitutional “skin in the game” of presidential selection made it perfectly positioned for this role of official observer.
Who then does have the power to settle disputes over electoral slates, such as those in 1876 and 2020? Whether electors are validly chosen is a quintessentially legal determination, not a political one. When state legislatures select presidential electors, they exercise power vested in them by the U.S. Constitution, not by state law. As the power to say what federal law is rests with the federal judiciary, it is the federal courts that have the authority and the responsibility to resolve these disputes.
Congress should promptly repeal the Electoral Vote Counting Act. Given the tight constitutional timeline for casting and counting votes and inaugurating a president, lawmakers should enact a statute providing for expeditious federal judicial resolution of all questions relating to compliance with state legislatively established procedures for selecting presidential electors, the validity of elector selection, and the casting of electoral votes—and requiring eventual mandatory Supreme Court review.
By ridding the country of this unconstitutional and anachronistic law, lawmakers would remove themselves from the process for choosing the president and surrender back to the federal judiciary the role Congress unconstitutionally arrogated to itself almost a century and a half ago. That would go a long way toward ensuring that America never witnesses a siege on the National Capitol on a future Jan. 6.
Mr. Luttig served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1991-2006. He advised Vice President Mike Pence on the 2020 vote certification. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.